Does the NFL really ever have an offseason?
With the passing of Super Bowl 50, fans can officially begin to peruse players who will become free agents this year and dream of signing the big names in hopes of improving their teams. While these lists are always fun to research and compile, it is important to remember that a high percentage of the top 20 players listed below will never make it to the open market.
Expectations are that this year’s NFL salary cap will jump more than $10 million from where it sat last year. As a result, teams will have a little more wiggle room to keep their own players while attempting to bring in reinforcements and game-changers; it will also cause top talent contracts to achieve heights previously unseen.
Teams will begin to re-sign their players they consider assets as soon as possible. If a long-term agreement cannot be reached, the teams have until the first of March to franchise tag the players and keep them for an additional year at an exponentially higher rate. Then, the new league year will officially begin on March 9th at 4:00 pm and the road to Super Bowl LI in Houston will officially be underway.
Top 20 2016 NFL Unrestricted Free Agents:
1. Von Miller (Denver Broncos Linebacker): He terrorized Cam Newton in Super Bowl 50 and earned MVP Honors in that game. As formidable in the run game as he is rushing the passer. He will be tagged or signed long-term. Translation: Ya boy is about to get PAID.
2. Alshon Jeffery (Chicago Bears Wide Receiver): He is a perfect target in the end-zone at 6’3″ and 216 lbs and highlights an exceptionally weak wide out free agent class. Chicago will not let him go anywhere.
3. Muhammad Wilkerson (New York Jets Defensive Lineman): Take this one with a grain of salt; Wilkerson’s 2015 season ended with a broken leg. Still, his dominance is on par with the likes of J.J. Watt, Aaron Donald and Ndamukong Suh. The Jets have two other players in Sheldon Richardson and Leonard Williams that are in the same mold as Wilkerson, so it is possible that they decide to part ways with him in favor of younger, cheaper options.
4. Malik Jackson (Denver Broncos Defensive Lineman): You could make the argument that Jackson was just as effective as Von Miller on that Denver defensive front. He has dominated guards and centers all year as an interior pass rusher and has the kind of build and skill set that teams want in the modern pass-heavy NFL.
5. Kelechi Osemele (Baltimore Ravens Offensive Guard): Osemele and counterpart Marshall Yanda are considered among many to be the best offensive guard tandem in the NFL. The Ravens experimented with him at left tackle towards the end of the season which did not go particularly well. If played at his true position, there is no one better.
6. Greg Hardy (Dallas Cowboys Defensive End): No one is saying that Greg Hardy is a man of character besides Jerry Jones. But, it is impossible to deny that he wrecks offensive game plans at the most valuable position in the NFL other than Quarterback. There have been no recent indications that Dallas will bring Hardy back; it will be interesting to see if a franchise will offer him yet another chance.
7. Josh Norman (Carolina Panthers Cornerback): The argument will be made (deservedly so) that Josh Norman should be much higher on this list following a season where he was in the conversation for NFL Defensive Player of the Year. The fact remains that Carolina’s defensive scheme did help Norman look more the part of a “lock-down corner.” It is doubtful the Panthers will let him go, but, if he becomes the marquee name for another team, a repeat of last year’s Byron Maxwell signing seems likely.
8. Olivier Vernon (Miami Dolphins Defensive End): Miami cannot afford to pour any more money into their defensive front after breaking the bank on Ndamukong Suh last season and what they are paying Cameron Wake. Vernon will call another place home in 2016, but, will he be as successful as the primary focus of opposition’s blocking schemes?
9. Cordy Glenn (Buffalo Bills Offensive Tackle): In a time when offensive line play seems to be at an all-time low, solid blindside protectors are a rare find. Buffalo’s offensive line cannot afford to see Glenn leave with one of his teammates, who also made the Top 20, set to hit the open market. Franchise Tag or long-term deal for Glenn.
10. Damon Harrison (New York Jets Nose Tackle): Harrison often went unnoticed among the embarrassment of riches the Jets had along the d-line last season. With both he and teammate Muhammad Wilkerson scheduled to hit the free agency simultaneously, it is almost certainly one or the other for New York.
11. Matt Forte (Chicago Bears Running Back): Forte has already announced that Chicago will not be resigning him for the foreseeable future. Turning 30 years old is typically a career death sentence for NFL running backs, but Forte can still be a valuable asset both in the running game and as a receiver out of the backfield.
12. Eric Berry (Kansas City Chiefs Safety): It should speak to Berry’s credit that, not only did he overcome lymphoma in 2015, he was immensely effective in his return to the field. Berry graded out as Pro Football Focus‘ top ranked safety of this year’s free agent class in 2015-16. Comeback Player of the Year is a drastic understatement.
13. Danny Trevathan (Denver Broncos Linebacker): It will be fascinating to see how Denver handles their offseason, with so many of their best players heading for free agency. Trevathan, like Damon Harrison of the Jets, was easy to lose track of in Denver’s championship-winning defensive lineup. In an era of the NFL that sees most inside linebackers as interchangeable, Trevathan will be a solid, but overpaid addition to another team.
14. Doug Martin (Tampa Bay Buccaneers Running Back): Being the second-leading rusher in the NFL last season has a nice ring, but running backs are a dime-a-dozen in a pass-heavy league. Martin took major strides last season to vault himself back into the conversation of the top backs after fading into the background the two seasons previous. He will not get the pay day he deserves, but will command significant money by running back standards.
15. George Iloka (Cincinnati Bengals Safety): Iloka’s is a name few will be familiar with, but, at 6’4″ & 225 lbs., you can be sure that wide receivers and tight ends know him well. Cincinnati faces a similar decision to Denver’s in that 15 of their players are slated to become unrestricted free agents. Iloka was a key part of their defensive success, but signing him long-term ensure the departure of several other key pieces as he’ll command the largest price tag.
16. Sean Smith (Kansas City Chiefs Cornerback): Sean Smith decided to play out the final year of his contract last April, but probably did not account for the emergence of star rookie, Marcus Peters. Now that Kansas City has the reigning Defensive Rookie of the Year at the same position, Smith’s future is not as certain. At 28 years old, he will yield significant value; Kansas City will try and get him to buy in for a shorter deal while they have Peters on a rookie contract.
17. Richie Incognito (Buffalo Bills Offensive Guard): What wonders an entire year away from football can do for the body of an offensive lineman. Incognito was consistently at the top or in the top three of Pro Football Focus’ weekly grades throughout the entirety of the NFL season. At 32 years of age, he will not be a long-term solution anywhere, but he has certainly earned himself a few more dollars and elongated his career in spite of the still-undecided bullying “scandal.”
18. Marvin Jones (Cincinnati Bengals Wide Receiver): The drop-off from Alshon Jeffery to Jones is a steep one. He is not a number one receiver but was an effective secondary option along Cincy stars A.J. Green and Tyler Eifert. Jones will likely go the Torrey Smith route: go elsewhere and get overpaid despite route-running limitations.
19. Kirk Cousins (Washington Football Team Quarterback): Kirk Cousins started the season with six touchdowns to eight interceptions through the first six weeks. The former Michigan State gunslinger then went out and silenced the doubters by finishing with 29 TDs to 11 picks, a first place finish in the NFC East (a dumpster fire, but, someone had to win), and a trip to the playoffs. Starting QBs are scarce, and, if Cousins & his representation are smart, he will test his value on the open market, provided he does not get tagged.
20. Jason Pierre-Paul (New York Giants Defensive End): The skills are still there to be disruptive in the backfield. But, the fact remains that he cannot tackle effectively because he cannot grip opposing players with his injured hand. If he finds a way to overcome that disadvantage, he vaults to the Top 10 of this list.